Gaza suffers in long shadow of 1492

Same shit, different day. Groundhog Day as interminable horror rather than comedic interlude.

Gaza 2018. Fallujah 2003. Soweto 1976. Derry 1972. My Lai 1968. Paris 1961. Chuka 1953. Madagascar 1948. Kiev 1941. Bulhoek 1921. Amritsar 1919.

Anyone with an internet connection can quickly draw a line, colonial massacre by colonial massacre, from this week back to 1492.

The world is changing rapidly, and it will not remain the same in the wake of the new forces rising in the East. But there’s no doubting that the epoch that began in 1492, an epoch fundamentally marked by European domination of the world, is not yet concluded.

The Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion in 380. There had been hostility to Jews from the Church since, at least, the Synod of Elvira in what is now Southern Spain in 305 or 306. But, extending over Asia and Africa, the Empire did not understand itself as a European project.


It has been suggested that Europe first appears in the historical record as a political and cultural concept, rather than a geographic marker, in 754 in a Latin account of the Battle of Tours. In this battle, fought in what is now France on October 10 732, a Frankish army turned back the invading Muslim forces under the command of the governor general of al-Andalus.

The concept of Europe that began to cohere was religious and not racial. The moment at which Europe became a force on the international stage is often traced back to November 27 1095 when Pope Urban II gave a speech, in the city of Claremont, now in France, that authorised the first crusade to capture Jerusalem. The crusaders were offered advanced forgiveness for the sins that they would commit, and a papal bull, Terra Nullius (Empty Land), was issued. It gave the crusaders the right to expropriate land held by people who were not Christians.

The following year a popular and unofficial crusade, animated by millennarian fantasies, resulted in the massacre of Jews along the Rhine before the army of peasants and low-ranking knights was decisively defeated in what is now Turkey. But the Princes’ Crusade, which set out later in the same year, captured cities in what is now Turkey and took Jerusalem on July 7 1099.

The crusades continued for almost two centuries. On January 2 1492, everything changed. After 10 years of war, eight centuries of Islamic power in the Iberian peninsula came to an end. On March 31 an edict declaring the expulsion of practising Jews from Spain was issued. On October  21 Christopher Columbus arrived in what is now the Caribbean.

The holocaust that fell on the people of what was declared the New World — a cascading catastrophe of dispossession, enslavement and murder — was justified in the name of Christianity.

In the 16th century enslavement in the New World began to include Africans and by the 17th century the justification for the exclusion of most people from the count of the fully human began to shift from religion to philosophy and science. The hallucination of race was invented, and began to be organised and enforced, in the name of reason.

It is often argued that this moment is marked in literature by William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, first performed in London in 1611. “This island’s mine,” Caliban insists to Prospero, “by Sycorax my mother.”

By the time of the successful African revolution against European enslavement in Haiti in 1804, the delirium of race was so entrenched in Europe that, as Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote, the reality of what had happened was simply inconceivable for “even the extreme political left in France”.

After the end of slavery in the United States in 1865, following a general strike by enslaved people and four years of war, possibilities for a new democratic order were soon lost. In his monumental 1935 Black Reconstruction in America WEB du Bois wrote that the key demand for a material basis for substantive equality was for land but that this demand was often received with “surprise and ridicule”.

But, he argued, “to have given each one of the million Negro free families a forty-acre freehold would have made a basis of real democracy in the US that might easily have transformed the modern world”.

Without a material basis for substantive democratic equality, white supremacy was restored by the violent terror of a counterrevolution driven by an alliance between property owners and impoverished whites, which established a new system of domination organised around disenfranchisement and segregation.

German fascism tried, in what Aimé Césaire famously called “the boomerang effect”, to return the colonial project to Europe. After the genocidal horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust, racism lost much of its credibility as an explicit project. Claims about biology began to give way to claims about culture, and colonial domination to new forms of tutelage legitimated in the name of “development”.

When India became independent on August 15 1947, it was clear that, with the exception of the settler colonies, colonialism had become an outmoded form of domination. Ghana would be independent 10 years later.

But the explicitly white forms of power in the South of the US, and in Australia, Algeria and Southern Africa were not confronted by the new international order. And a new settler colony was forged in blood, iron and terror as Europe displaced responsibility for its genocidal racism, which had culminated in the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau, on to the people of Palestine.

On May 14 1948 the state of Israel came into being following the Nakba, the Catastrophe, in which more than 700 000 Palestinians were driven from their homes.

Twelve days later, the National Party, explicitly inspired by German fascism, was elected into office in South Africa, marking the beginning of apartheid.

In the settler colonies, beginning with Algeria in 1961, an end to formal colonialism would be won by war and mass struggle. The end of apartheid in 1994 offered most people what Césaire had called “abstract” rights, rather than the substantive, material basis for democratic equality that Du Bois had written about.

In many respects, including, for instance, much of its approach to the urban crisis and its investment in the colonial fantasy that white agency must lurk behind popular black dissent, the new state had strikingly neocolonial elements. Its failures with regard to the land question, and its willingness to resort to murder to contain dissent, are undeniable.

Nonetheless apartheid, as a legal system, had to give way, at least in principle, to a turn in the tide of history.

But Israel, a grossly and brutally racist state, a state explicitly seen and legitimated as a Western enclave in hostile terrain, endures as a project of racial domination. Israel is not only backed by the US military and much of the Western media, it also participates in the Eurovision song contest and the European Football Confederation.

The idea of whiteness has some of its deep roots in often murderous religious hostility towards Jews and Muslims but it is flexible enough to accept new entrants and to modernise itself. As the Irish became “white” so too have many Israelis and the Israeli state. The impunity with which the Israeli state expropriates land, oppresses, maims and murders is fundamentally colonial.

In 2018 the explicit commitment to racism in Israel is not an anomaly. The vote for Brexit in June 2016 and then the election of US President Donald Trump in November that year were both clear indications that, in the United Kingdom and the US, many people remain deeply invested, psychologically and politically, in the fantasy of whiteness, a fantasy with very real material consequences.

From the US to Gaza, those consequences go beyond the distribution of wealth to include a racial basis to the calculus of who can and who cannot be murdered with impunity.

Here in South Africa, AfriForum is a local version of a global project, led from the US, to restore and modernise racism as an explicit project. It is particularly hostile to attempts to give substance to equality.

Its leader, Kallie Kriel, is not, unlike, say, Eugène Terre’blanche in the 1980s, a backward provincial buffoon on the global periphery of whiteness. He is allied to a global movement, a movement that has put a man in the White House and has an eye to the future.

And complicity with that movement is widespread. Every time that AfriForum is described as a “civil rights organisation”, or Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East”, we are in the presence of attempts to normalise racism. In 2018 we still live in the long shadow of 1492.

Until we put an end to that epoch, Israel will continue to expropriate, oppress and murder with impunity. The bullets will continue to rush through the smoke of the burning tyres as people try to breach the walls of the ghetto in which they have been contained.

Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research

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Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University, where he lectures on contemporary political theory and urban studies. He writes regularly for journals and newspapers, both print and online, and his commentary is widely read.

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